Mary Ann Chastain  /  AP
Marine Corps veteran Abdul Baseer-El, 57, shed 100 pounds through an exercise and diet regimen for veterans at Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, S.C., despite ligament problems in his knees that force him to use a cane.
updated 5/15/2006 9:48:26 AM ET 2006-05-15T13:48:26

Vietnam veteran Abdul Baseer-El survived a rocket attack in Da Nang in the ’60s. Today he is fighting a new enemy: obesity.

The 57-year-old former Marine has worked hard to lose 100 pounds with the help of doctors at a Veterans Affairs hospital. He’s one of millions of veterans struggling with weight problems and the ensuing health complications.

Now he’s trying to help other vets with similar challenges in a 10-week program called MOVE.

Baseer-El, who once weighed 282 pounds, tells his colleagues how he keeps the weight off by using creative ways to burn more calories doing everyday tasks.

“I turn the light switch off with my foot,” he recently told about a dozen overweight vets, showing them how he leans back and lifts one leg as high as he can. “I try to make everything I do some form of exercise. ... I want to keep that weight off.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs says that of the 7.5 million veterans receiving its health benefits, more than 70 percent are overweight and 20 percent have diabetes, which can lead to blindness, amputations, kidney failure and heart problems.

The MOVE program, which began as a pilot project in 2003 and went national in January, tries to help the vets tackle those problems. They learn how to plan meals, read food labels and are given a personalized exercise program designed to work around combat injuries or physical limitations.

Hearing from their peers helps, said Dr. Rodney Reid, who’s in charge of the program in central South Carolina. “Vets tend to accept the message better if it comes from other vets,” he said.

A tear slipped down Baseer-El’s cheek as he recounted his post-Vietnam slide into depression, drugs and alcohol abuse, which ended only after lengthy counseling and medical assistance.

“I talk to myself a lot, because I am isolated. But I can bear witness ... there is benefit in finding one positive thing in life to focus on and do it. If you only lose half a pound, you did something,” he told the group.

While trying to kick his drug and alcohol addictions, Baseer-El turned to food. Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes.

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“I went on the warpath,” he said. “I became obsessed” about counting calories and finding innovative ways to exercise.

“Instead of putting potatoes in a food processor, I mash ’em with a fork,” he said. “I put my cans on low shelves, so when I cook, I do deep knee bends. If I’m not in pain, I try to walk every day.”

11,000 registered
For many veterans, just getting started is a big hurdle. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological problems.

John McCants, an Army communications specialist with 23 years of service, said his weight gain came as he battled depression. “Instead of lashing out, I eat. I’m a borderline diabetic, and I suffer from hypertension,” he said.

McCants, 50, said he started the program three years ago but “fell off the wagon” and needs to lose 40 pounds.

“I like what Mr. Baseer had to say, that you have to start somewhere and keep working at it,” he said. “You have to be creative about it.”

Phyllis Gatewood, a coordinator for the MOVE program in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, said about 11,000 veterans are registered nationwide.

Veterans’ weight statistics are similar to the U.S. population. However, the VA serves the military’s enlisted veterans who often come from less affluent backgrounds and may have poor eating habits and limited access to exercise facilities.

Half of those served by the VA are over 65, and pain is the biggest reason they give for not exercising.

Gilliam Smith, who was in Vietnam with the Air Force from 1967-68, said the pounds “piled on” after he suffered a stroke and had cancer surgery three years ago. “I’m by myself, and I didn’t want to start exercise and fall off a bike or treadmill or something,” said Smith, 69. “This is a real opportunity for me.”

Exercise therapist Franciner Riley urged the vets to start small. “Exercise is a form of therapy,” she said. “It will help you deal with your medical and mental challenges.”

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